Bennie Adkins died the other day. The retired Army command sergeant major was 86 and had fought a 23-day battle against the coronavirus. A little more than 50 years ago, halfway around the world, Bennie’s heroic actions at the battle of Dai Do in Vietnam resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Honor.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about my fellow veterans. Honorable men like Bennie Adkins. And John McCain. We carried the weapons of war in defense of our nation and our liberties.
In recent days, we have seen images of Americans carrying weapons as part of their protests to immediately reopen society. What are they planning to do, shoot the virus with their AR-15s?
These self-absorbed and selfish Americans complain they are irritated, anxious, bored, upset — unhappy that their lives have been affected by this temporary restraint on their freedoms. Some have even gotten into confrontations with nurses and other frontline health-care workers who believe now is not the time to resume normality.
Every day, there are heartbreaking new reports of nurses and doctors sick or dying because of their service to our country. They find themselves at the tip of the spear as we combat this pandemic. That they have to take precious time from getting desperately needed rest or being with their families to counter these protesters makes my blood boil.
Of course, our First Amendment gives them the right to protest. Our veterans helped ensure it. But let’s make one thing clear: It is impossible to characterize the actions of those who are protesting orders to stay at home as courageous or heroic.
Health-care workers on front lines
In this war against the indiscriminate and lethal enemy, nurses, doctors, ambulance drivers, and countless other health-care workers are serving on the front lines. While wearing a different uniform, they are surely putting their lives at risk just as I did as a young Army staff sergeant 50 years ago.
As a veteran, I look at these protests with a different perspective and believe many veterans would agree. Some may not. That’s OK. This is America.
Apparently these protesters with their weapons and false bravado — many of whom risk spreading the virus further by refusing to wear masks and standing apart from one another — are smarter than the medical experts. They have decided to ignore the public discussions about incrementally turning our economy back on because it doesn’t fit their personal timetables.
Let’s consider that while out of work, and I don’t for a minute minimize the real financial pain this is causing, they are generally confined to their homes, with refrigerators, televisions, the internet, and the ability to take a walk, go to the store, or just talk to a neighbor.
Let’s also focus for a moment on the millions of Americans who have worn the uniform of this great country, put themselves in harm's way in ways most could not comprehend, and protected the right of these protesters to complain.
And let’s remember those whose service resulted in capture, among them my friend John McCain, who spent 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton.
That’s 66 months. Our social distancing has not yet reached eight weeks.
Those prisoners of war were not able to take a walk or drive to the grocery store for supplies. Now there may be a few Americans who don’t think our POWs were heroes, but most Americans have a deep appreciation of their service and sacrifice.
Nation needs us to sacrifice
The point is this. Your country has asked you to forgo your normal personal and professional routine for a couple of months in the war against COVID-19. No question, it is difficult and sometimes feels unbearable as economic and emotional stress mount each day. But the pandemic in less than three months has taken the lives of more Americans than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.
The entire country is under siege, but you are not in the trenches of France, not gaining ground inch by inch in the Pacific, not slogging through the paddies and jungles in Vietnam, and not taking on global terrorists in desert warfare. And you are NOT prisoners of war. You are at home.
We are citizens of the greatest country on planet Earth. As citizens, we are asked to wear temporarily a unique uniform of service decorated with ribbons for patience, understanding, and support of the troops on the front lines.
I don’t think that is too much to ask, especially if we check the history books and remind ourselves that we are a resilient country and that we can prevail in this battle if we work together.
Politics be damned. No time for it now. We can sort it out later. Same team. Same fight. Let’s get on with it.
Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and the first U.S. secretary of Homeland Security. He served as an infantry staff sergeant in Vietnam, earning the Bronze Star for Valor. This piece originally appeared in USA Today.